Winning the Wearables Race Through Human Psychology

Photographer: Tom Blackwell

Ever wonder why we do what we do? From a product management perspective, understanding the human psychology behind intent, purchase, and sustained use can make the difference between a wild success or financial disaster.

From studies to industry insiders, wearables for the most have been received with lukewarm reception and for good reason; it’s void of a humanistic approach.

The Science of Human Psychology

Most of us are familiar with Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. After meeting our physiological and safety needs, humans crave love, belonging, and selfesteem. Yet, perhaps these psychological needs are least understood and practiced by wearable manufacturers and startups, as evidenced at CES 2015.

Love & Belonging
Humans need to love and be loved by others. The need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among our social groups is so powerful that this psychological need sometimes override physiological and safety needs and logic. Deficiencies in this area can impact a person’s ability to form and maintain emotionally significant connections, resulting in severe cases loneliness, social anxiety, and clinical depression.

Additionally, according to psychologist Robert Sternberg, love has three components: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Interestingly these are the same user experience qualities that we hope for when consumers purchase our products and solutions. Hence, it vexes the best of us that wearable product managers are missing the softer side of adoption.

Case Study: Social Media, Why We Feel Closer
Researchers Horton and Wohl proposed the theory of parasocial interaction or intimacy at a distance to explain how television audiences developed perceptions of having a relationship with TV celebrities. This once unidirectional experience has changed with the advent of modern social media. A study by Lueck observed that a single post by Kim Kardashian would elicit hundreds of responses from her fans without any further action by Kim, yet her followers experienced a parasocial connection through Kim’s tweets and photos. According to Hartmann and Goldhoorn, parasocial interaction can be immediate, personal, and reciprocal,but these qualities are illusory and not shared by the celebrity. However, for fans the sense of connection is real and supports their needs for love and belonging.

Self-esteem is a human need to feel respected and valued by others. There are two levels of selfesteem: a lower and a higher level. The lower level of selfesteem is the need for respect from others. This may include a need for status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. This is most visible among celebrities but the fundamental need indwells in all of us. The higher level is characterized as the need for selfrespect. For example, the person may have a need for strength, competence, mastery, selfconfidence, independence, and freedom. The higher level takes precedence over the lower level because it relies on competence built through experience.

Case Study: GoPro
Why did the Google Glass Explorer program cease while GoPro continues to build a fanatical
fan base? GoPro is the ultimate selfesteem tool as your fans watch your jawdropping stunts. In GoPro, you are the star as you partake in some of the world’s greatest adventures, from frolicking with lions, surfing the gnarliest Teahupo’o wave to skiing down Harikiri, Austria, the steepest slope in the world. The emotional reward for the athlete and audience alike are outsized.

On the other hand, Google Glass with its firstperson camera takes you out of the picture. Your surrounding and other people become the focal point, not you. Sadly, this does little to support your selfesteem needs and frustrates a lot of passersby in the process.

Self-concept refers to the whole sum of beliefs that people have about themselves. Attitudes of approval or disapproval are central to selfconcept. General attitudes can predict patterns of behavior over time.

The self can be broken into three components: affective (emotional), behavior, and cognition. The affective aspect is interested in how people evaluate themselves, enhance their selfimage, and maintain a secure sense of identity. Behavior inquires about how people regulate their actions and present themselves to others. Cognition looks at how individuals become themselves, build a selfconcept, and uphold a stable sense of identity.

People develop their selfconcepts by varied means, including introspection, feedback from others, selfperception, and social comparison. By comparison to others, people gain information about themselves, and they make inferences that are relevant to selfesteem. Social comparisons can be either upward or downward. Downward comparisons are often made in order to elevate selfesteem.
This may explain why people are motivated by the gaming mechanics of social media leaderboards.

There are three components to self-concept:

  • Selfworth: What we think about ourselves. Feelings of selfworth are developed in childhood.
  • Selfimage: How we see ourselves. Selfimage has an affect on how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, such as perception of ourselves as beautiful or ugly.
  • Ideal self : What we aspire to become. Note that our goals and ambitions are not static but rather dynamic.

Why is Change So Hard?

The Inner Conflict
Change is hard. The biggest obstacle to wearables and the Internet of Things adoption is not echnology but rather our minds. From new healthy habits to organizational change, research shows that people struggle to embrace new behaviors because there is a conflict built into our brains. According to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, there are two systems that run our lives theemotional mind and the rational mind. The emotional mind is fast, intuitive, emotional, and largely unconscious that makes most of our decisions in autopilot mode. The emotional mind prefers convenience and routine. The rational mind, on the other hand, is slower, more deliberate, and analytical. The rational mind aspires for selfactualization. To change behavior, the rational mind needs to override the emotional mind that’s running in autopilot. That may explain why some of us automatically reach for a donut instead of fresh fruits or other healthy options.

Incremental Change
The best products are those that enhance our current behavior, requiring minimal change.

When developing new products, there are three types of product innovation: 1) continuous innovation that requires no new consumer behavior to learn, 2) dynamic continuous innovation that requires some education or behavior modification, and 3) discontinuous innovation that requires an entirely new consumer behavior.

Case Study: Electric Cars
This may explain why the Toyota Prius has been a worldwide sensation since 2000; it requires no change to current driving behavior.

Whereas a fully electric Tesla mandates many changes, from planning out your travel routes to stay within the range, charging overnight to even installing solar panels to offset drain to the power grid.

Case Study: Selfies
According to University of Georgia research on selfies, there are three primary drivers to the global phenomenon of selfies: selfabsorption or narcissism, social connection, and art. Selfies provide a powerful sense of authenticity, immediacy, and intimacy that comes from the subject(s).

From a behavioral perspective, people have always taken photographs to document and share special moments. However, flagging down passersby to help take a picture of you with your friends or family was inconvenient and opportunities infrequent. The introduction of frontfacing camera on smartphones simply made current human behavior easier and in the process created an art form.

Aerial drones represent the next leap in selfies as it hovers overhead to capture a lifelog of your every moment.

Small Effort, Big Gain
A fundamental truth about humans is that, ceteris paribus, we prefer the option that yields the greatest benefit for the least amount of effort. The dietary supplements industry is a classic example.

For product success, the benefits must hugely outweigh the effort to adopt. The current landscape of wearables can be best characterized as low to moderate effort for small gain. Many of the fitness bands would fall under this category.

There are, of course, cases when big effort, big gain works, especially in transformational Internet of Things initiatives for enterprises. The key is that the ROI has to be big enough to squelch even the loudest critic.

There is another insight. According to Kivetz, Urminsky, and Zheng, people tend to exert more effort as they get closer to their goals. Product managers can design wearables and apps in such a way that people perceive that they are getting closer to a goal. Creating the illusion of progress enhances motivation by reducing the perceived distance remaining to a goal. Another aspect of motivating end users is to provide them with regular updates about where they are in the progress.

Positive Reinforcement
According to a study by Professor Margaret Campbell, it suggests that when we try to enact change, we are much more likely to give more weight to our positive behaviors than to negative ones. This is also referred to as progress bias. Dr. Campbell states, “Basically what our research shows is that people tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative when considering how they’re doing in terms of goal pursuit.” That should encourage product managers to create a wearable experience that elicits positive encouragement rather than feelings of guilt. This rings especially true for the wearable health and fitness categories.

According to Chip and Dan Heath in Switch, successful changes follow a pattern that people can use to make the changes that matter to them, which over time becomes a keystone habit.

The book Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg tells a story of a young woman who, over the course of two years, transformed every aspect of her life. She stopped smoking, ran a marathon, and was promoted at work. What neurologists found out was that the patterns inside her brain have drastically changed due to new habits.

Framework for Creating Winning Wearables and IoT Solutions
Here’s a litmus test to assess if your wearables product or IoT solution will be loved (or hated) by your target segments:

Love & Belonging

  • How does your solution support the human need to be loved and accepted (e.g., like, share, invite, recommend, executive steering committee support)?
  • Does your solution make others love him/her more (e.g., authenticity, winning deals)?
  • Does the user experience elicit intimacy, passion, and/or commitment?
  • How does it encourage greater social connection?


  • Does your solution make others respect him/her more (e.g., status, recognition, fame, prestige, attention, promotion)?
  • How does your solution help support selfrespect (e.g., strength, competence, mastery, selfconfidence, freedom, skill certification)?


  • How does your solution seek feedback from others (e.g., comment, review, evaluation)?
  • How does your solution allow for social comparison (e.g., leaderboard, number of followers, new revenue by accounts, sales close rate)?
  • How does your solution reinforce positive attitudes (e.g., number of calls made)?
  • Does your solution make the user feel good about himself/herself
  • How does your solution help reach his/her ideal self?

Incremental Change

  • Does your solution require minimal change to current behavior?

Small Effort, Big Gain

  • Does your solution offer big benefits for small effort?
  • If your solution requires change to current behavior, does the benefit sufficiently motivate the user to change?
  • How does your solution motivate by creating the perception of getting closer to a goal?

Positive Reinforcement

  • Does your solution accentuate the positive and downplay the negative in regards to
    attaining a goal?


  • How does your solution help create new positive habits?

About Scott Amyx

Scott Amyx is the founder & CEO of Amyx+McKinsey, a wearables strategy agency specializing in smart wearables strategy and development. As a thought leader in smart wearables computing and Internet of Things, Scott explores the intersection of enterprise implications and consumer decisions of adopting wearables and IoT technologies. He writes for Wired, InformationWeek, IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, and speaks at global conferences on wearables & Internet of Things strategy and innovation.

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